With the exception of Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, perhaps no tennis player ever made a more auspicious debut at a major championship than Pam Shriver, who reached the finals of the 1978 US Open. Since then she's been in a prolonged holding pattern, hovering near the top of the sport, yet still waiting to make her next big breakthrough. That breakthrough, she said during a recent interview with the Monitor, would involve retracing her steps. ``I have yet to reach another final in a Grand Slam event,'' she observed. ``But when I do it's certainly going to register a lot more than it did back then [in '78].''
That was the year she came out of McDonough High School in Lutherville, Md., to upset top-seeded Martina Navratilova in the Open's semifinal round. In doing so, she became the tournament's youngest female finalist ever, younger even than Chris Evert, her victorious opponent, or Tracy Austin were in reaching the same advanced point.
Shriver's potential looked unlimited then. Though a baby-faced amateur, she had a strong serve-and-volley game made all the more intimidating by her six-foot height and large Prince racket. Even so, she has beaten Navratilova only twice since then, and, after 15 matches against Evert Lloyd is still seeking her first victory. (Chris beat her just two weeks ago in the final of the Virginia Slims of Newport, R.I. 6-4, 6-1.)
A flop? Hardly. During the intervening years she has won eight tournaments, collected nearly $2 million in prize money, become a consistent Top 10 player, and even been named Comeback Player of the Year in 1980.
She's carved out quite a doubles record, too. She and Navratilova teamed to win a record 109 straight doubles matches, including back-to-back Grand Slams, before finally having the streak snapped at Wimbledon last month. (In a battle-of-the-sexes match, they will play Bobby Riggs and Vitas Gerulaitis Aug. 23 in Atlantic City.)
It's as a singles player that Pam really is still waiting to make her mark. ``I think I'm right on the verge of doing well in a major tournament,'' she said. ``I just have to continue to be consistent. For a player like me, who isn't up to Martina's or Chris's caliber, maybe it just takes getting a good break in the draw.''
That, as it turns out, is exactly what she didn't have at Wimbledon this year, when she entered the tournament on a roll, having won three events in a row and playing the best tennis of her life.
``I honestly felt I had a good shot at Wimbledon,'' she recalled. That chance, however, presented her with a succession of tough matches. In the rain-postponed opening round, she met Anne White, who rather diconcertingly picked their match to wear a shocking bodysuit that later was banned. Next up was Britain's Ann Hobbs, a local favorite, followed by Virginia Wade, England's pride and joy, on the occasion of the former champion's retirement from singles.
``Everything was kind of distracting, but I was able to cope with it and get through,'' she said, pleased with her effort. ``I think in other years I would have lost early because I wasn't mature enough to handle those situations -- especially having to beat Virginia on Centre Court with the crowds all cheering for her.''
After beating Wade, she held off teen whiz kid Steffi Graf, the Olympic champion, in an all-out, three-set struggle. Then came the quarterfinals and yet another date with Navratilova. Pam lost 7-6, 6-3 in a match that was as close as the score indicates.
``Even with the gap that separates Martina and Chris from the rest of us it's surprising when you're out there that only one or two shots make the difference,'' she observed.
Still, she recognizes this consistent difference as a sign of superiority for her rivals, who she believes will go down as two of the finest players in history. ``They'll probably be on everyone's top five list,'' she said, ``and when you consider that their careers have basically spanned the same time period, it hasn't left a whole lot for the rest of us, except to learn from them.''
For Shriver this learning process has occurred as the Big Two of women's tennis were elevating their own games. In fact, as Pam sees it, Navratilova, 28, and Evert Lloyd, 30, are enjoying their golden years right now.
``At their age, an athlete should be in their prime, physically as well as emotionally,'' she said. ``I just turned 23 and I definitely feel that the best years are still ahead for me. I'll never dominate the way either one of those two has, but I'll have my moment in the sun.''
At the beginning of this year, however, she left the tour altogether to take nearly a three-month sabbatical. She needed to put some distance between herself and the game, and retreated to her home in Baltimore, where her favorite team, the baseball Orioles, also reside. Pam owns a renovated, five-story townhouse in a historical part of the city as well a the Orchard Indoor Tennis, the club where she learned the game from Australian-born teaching pro Don Candy.
In the past she's also been active in local politics, having served as Maryland's honorary chairwoman of Women to Re-elect Reagan, this despite being a distant cousin to 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee Sargent Shriver.
With Pam holding down the No. 4 spot in the computer rankings, her extended leave may have seemed ill-timed. She was so tennis-ed out, though, she didn't even pick up a racket for five weeks. Once she finally did, the old enthusiasm returned.
Before this hiatus, Shriver had been feeling the pressure and sometimes venting her frustrations. She got tired of hearing questions about when she would rise up and end the Chris and Martina show. ``I wound up saying some things in press conferences that I should have thought about saying first because they didn't come out right,'' she admitted.
Her emotions have occasionally gotten the better of her on the court, too, and in one incident several years ago she verbally tore into Tracy Austin during a match in Toronto. She later apologized, which is something she's done after other outbursts as well.
If Pam seems more relaxed this year, it may be because other players have surfaced to challenge Navratilova and Evert Lloyd. Shriver was never particularly comfortable stepping into the void left by Austin and Andrea Jaeger, who have taken extended, injury-related leaves from the tour. ``When they left it sort of left the No. 3 and 4 spots up for grabs, and I grabbed one of them last year,'' she said. ``But that meant Hana Mandlikova had to answer all the questions about when we were going to beat C hris and Martina.'' Now, however, the weight of expectation has begun to be spread around among other players too, including Helena Sukova, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, and Manuela Maleeva.